Fashion Critic 'Mr. Blackwell' Dies at 86

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" Mr. Blackwell," whose annual "worst dressed" list dinged movie stars, music icons and European royalty and helped turn him into a household name from the 1960s through the '80s, has died. He was 86.

Blackwell had been in failing health and died Sunday afternoon at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles of complications from an intestinal infection, according to publicist Harlan Boll.

A onetime actor and model who turned to fashion design with limited success, Blackwell -- in his rankings of what he considered the most dreadful in design -- helped popularize the sort of dishy commentary that takes notable figures down a notch by poking fun at their personal style.

Actresses Marilyn Monroe, Sophia Loren and Elizabeth Taylor made his list in the early 1960s. Taylor's "plump" figure and revealing clothes reminded him of "the rebirth of the zeppelin," he wrote in 1963. Loren, he wrote, dressed like "the Italian shop girls she portrays in movies."

More recently, Britney Spears and Paris Hilton, whom he called the "Screamgirls" and compared to "two peas in an overexposed pod," made the list. So did Camilla Parker-Bowles, " The Duchess of Dowdy," in Blackwell's opinion.

This year Victoria "Posh Spice" Beckham topped his survey. It was his 48th annual list.

Brigitte Bardot, Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler, Dolly Parton and Madonna took heat from Blackwell more than once. So did Queen Elizabeth. "From her majesty to her travesty," he wrote of her.

Blackwell gave his first annual assessment of celebrities and their tastes in 1960, placing Italian actress Anna Magnani, star of "The Rose Tattoo" and "Wild Is the Wind," at the top of his worst-dressed list. He credited her for being "one of the most distinguished actresses of our generation" but said she dressed in "tramp clothes."

His comments were published in the American Weekly, a syndicated Sunday supplement magazine, after a reporter there called and asked him to name his 10 worst-dressed picks and to comment on them. Every year from then on he teased the famous, using "Mr. Blackwell" as a calling card.

He had launched his clothing business, House of Blackwell, in 1958, teaching himself how to drape fabric on a model. His day and evening outfits recalled the era of the contract movie stars who were dressed top to bottom by staff designers for the major Hollywood studios.

"The clothes were slightly overdone," recalled Sylvia Sheppard, a fashion editor for Women's Wear Daily during Blackwell's heyday. "He wasn't a creative designer."

But to be a fashion designer was never his top priority. As Blackwell recounted in his autobiography, "From Rags to Bitches" (1995), he aimed "to become my most unforgettable creation: king of the caustic quote, arbiter of good taste and bad, the ultimate mix of madness, marketing and media attention."

His finger-wagging fashion reports were a twist on the annual best-dressed lists that were popular in the 1940s and '50s. Fashion expert and author Patty Fox said recently that Blackwell was the first she knew of to take an irreverent approach. Dozens of variations followed.

While Blackwell claimed he was "not unkind," his critiques ranged from merely catty -- "Words fail me!" he wrote in 1963 of screen ingenue Sandra Dee -- to cutting: -- "Do-it-yourself kit with the wrong instructions!" he pronounced about the fashion taste of Hollywood sex kitten Elke Sommer in his 1973 list.

"The list has whimsy," he insisted. "It's camp."

At times he published his choices for the best-dressed women of the year. Joan Crawford and Audrey Hepburn ranked in the 1960s, Nicole Kidman later on.

He announced his verdicts at an annual news conference in his Hancock Park home. Several times in the early 1970s, he was invited to expand on his choices as a guest on " The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson." In the 1980s and '90s, he commented on Oscar fashions during televised coverage of the Academy Awards.

He included men, particularly if they dressed in drag on screen or stage. Comedian Milton Berle got dinged in 1996 for his "padded brassiere and corseted rear." Boy George, the pop singer who wore lipstick and eye shadow, and Elton John with his feathered capes got caught in Blackwell's radar in the 1980s.

Some of Blackwell's targets fired back. When he took aim at country singer Barbara Mandrell in 1981 ("Yukon Sally playing the Alamo"), she sent him a jeweled lapel pin that spelled out "Big Mouth." He wore it proudly.

Others, including Jayne Mansfield, turned to him for advice. In 1961, after criticizing the actress with the hourglass figure for her "plunging neckline [that] has become a bare midriff problem," he supplied her with a wardrobe for her role in "Promises! Promises!" a 1963 movie best known for Mansfield's nude scenes.

Some of his choices for worst dressed seemed meant to shock -- notably, in 1973, Jacqueline Onassis, whose name regularly appeared on best dressed lists.

Blackwell's goal was not to be insightful so much as controversial, Sheppard, the former Women's Wear Daily fashion editor, said. As a result, she said, hardly anyone took his list seriously.

His personal style would make anyone wonder where he might rank on a best dressed list. In his early years he wore tight pants and silk shirts unbuttoned halfway down his chest. In middle-age he often wore a turtleneck sweater topped by a heavy gold chain. He spiced a dark conservative suit with bright red socks and wore a huge diamond earring.

In a 2000 interview with the Ottawa Citizen of Canada, he said he had had four face-lifts, starting with an ear-tuck and nose job at 17.

Born Richard Sylvan Selzer on Aug. 29, 1922, in Bensonhurst, a tough neighborhood in Brooklyn, N.Y., Blackwell was the younger of two sons of impoverished parents who were evicted from their apartment several times. More than once, Blackwell and his brother, Benson, lived in homes for troubled boys. Their father abandoned the family when Blackwell was a young teenager.

He got his start as an actor with small roles in several Broadway shows and was in the cast of "Dead End," which starred the Dead End Kids.

When the show closed in 1937, Blackwell moved to Los Angeles with his mother and brother and found work in movies, starting with "Little Tough Guy" (1938), a spinoff of the Broadway show he left behind. He got another small role that year in "Juvenile Court," starring Rita Hayworth.

In his 20s, he landed a small part in a Broadway show, "Catherine Was Great," starring Mae West, in 1944.

He also worked as a model for "True Detective" magazine, posing as "a mad scientist, a crazed rapist, a killer priest and a blind fortune teller," he wrote in his autobiography, to illustrate crime stories.

He credited aviation entrepreneur and movie producer Howard Hughes with changing his name to Richard Blackwell. Hughes cast him in "Vendetta" and chose the new name to sound "theatrical, polished, memorable," Blackwell wrote in his autobiography. But his scenes ended up on the cutting room floor.

While "Vendetta" was in production in 1949, Blackwell met Robert Spencer, a hairdresser. They soon became business and life partners, forming a talent agency that specialized in female torch singers. To help one young client get started, Blackwell designed nightclub dresses for her. Encouraged by the positive reaction, he and Spencer closed their talent management business and launched the fashion company Mr. Blackwell.

In the early 1960s, the growing success of Blackwell's worst-dressed lists pumped up sales of his own designs. The business survived the fashion upheaval of the 1960s, when miniskirts and minimal underwear put the Old Hollywood look Blackwell preferred out of date. As women's dress styles continued to change in the 1970s, he wasn't keeping up. First he said he was against jeans for women, then he came out with his own brand of them.

"It seemed he was desperately trying to hold on," fashion expert Fox said. His fashion commentaries were also wearing thin by the '70s and, Fox said, he became a caricature who was "no longer relevant."

Blackwell closed his fashion business in the mid-1970s. He revived his acting career in the 1980s, appearing in several films and television series, usually playing "Mr. Blackwell" in cameo roles.

"No longer would I be Mr. Blackwell," he wrote of the end of his fashion career. "I created him, and he had performed well. Audiences applauded. The world listened -- and I did what I had to do."

He is survived by Spencer, his partner of more almost 60 years. Private memorial services are being scheduled.

Instead of flowers, donations can be made to The ROAR Foundation at shambala.org, The Actors Fund at actorsfund.org or noonprop8.com.

mary.rourke@latimes.com

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